As Nigeria turns 50, Femi Kuti looks back in anger

2010-10-01 09:30

Lagos, Nigeria – Femi Kuti slumps down into a chair at his cavernous club in Lagos, ready to discuss what he calls Nigeria’s bitter 50th anniversary of independence, but he first wants to make something clear.

“I’m tired,” the 48-year-old musician and son of the late Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti says, his eyes drooping after just emerging from one of Lagos’s epic traffic jams, a constant source of frustration in this teeming city.

But it only takes a few minutes for his expression to change, for his passionate feelings on Nigeria and its corrupt leaders, on the legacy of his father and on Africa in general to come pouring out.

Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence on Friday, but he calls it a “sad birthday” for the ex-British colony, where poverty remains widespread despite the huge amount of oil revenue collected by the government.

“No electricity, no good health care ... people are dying in hospital, bad roads, corruption beyond your imagination,” he said. “Let’s say it’s a sad birthday.”

Though he has had a decidedly unpolitical hit – a hymn to sex, “Beng, Beng, Beng” – he has since moved closer to the style of his famous father, who harshly criticised the government in his music.

Fela Kuti had his own Shrine music club in Lagos, and Femi, his oldest son, has opened the New Afrika Shrine in another neighbourhood.

A recent Broadway play in New York has brought fresh attention to his father, and, by extension, Femi as well.

“When my father was fighting, I was 13. I am 48 ... same story and nothing has really changed for the better,” he says. “We have survived these terrible times.”

Yet, despite all his pessimism, he says he still has some hope.

“A vibrant generation is coming ... who hopefully will not take nonsense from corrupt leaders and who will be very strong and fight for a better Africa,” he says.

Born in Britain and raised in Nigeria, Femi holds strong Afro-centric views and names as some of his role models Ghana’s founding leader Kwame Nkrumah and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba.

He even dismisses the idea of the nation of Nigeria, pointing out that it is a country whose borders were drawn up by British colonisers.

He castigates Africans who are ignorant of their history, saying they are more concerned about the latest mobile phones or fashion on the international market.

Femi recounts the trauma over Nigerian military regimes’ treatment of his father, who died of an HIV-related illness in 1997.

“I saw him locked to jail. I saw him with broken bones, legs, arms. I saw blood all over my father. I lived in a very frightful state for a long time,” he says.

But now he has become a folk hero and “the police are in support of my father today. They now understand that when they were beating him then he was fighting for them too.”

The poverty and squalor of Nigeria hits him harder whenever he travels abroad and tries to draw comparisons.

While he has inherited his father’s outspokenness, his lifestyle is markedly different.

While his father had 27 wives and was known to smoke huge amounts of marijuana, Femi says he takes the sober route. He does not drink or smoke.

However, he still plays into the early hours of the morning when he takes the stage at the Shrine.

He says he would prefer to sing about positive aspects of life, but the condition of his country prevents it.

“Music should be godly, should be about love... but now I am using music to fight against evil, against ills of society,” he says. 

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